Thursday, May 20, 2021

Refugees after World War Two, but Fine in the End

 This post is a reminder that immigrants are a positive force in the world. This is a small part of my story and that of my immigrant family. At first, we lived in misery, but we overcame the challenges. In the end we succeeded both for ourselves, and for the good of the countries that received us. This is not a sob story, but a success story. 

We fled from Hungary to France in 1947, two years after the end of World War Two. 

Both countries were still war-torn, but Hungary was in far worse shape than France. It was occupied by the Soviet Army, and in the process of turning Communist. Budapest looked the same as Dresden - a devastated, flattened, pulverized graveyard with over one hundred thousand dead, including some of my relatives. In comparison, Paris was more livable. My parents somehow found the means to take the train to Paris. In late 1947, they and I made the move. It took us five days to get there. I was nearly seven years old.

Our official status in France was “apatride,” meaning “stateless.” I remember my main identity paper: It was a card with the United Nations logo. 

We arrived at the Gare de l”Est. The “City of Light” was still in recovery mode. Much public transportation still consisted of military trucks, some of them French, some American. I saw G .I. Joe dispensing chewing gum and coca-cola in the streets of Paris. We spent our first few nights at a Hungarian friend’s place in the Rue de Buci, on the Left Bank. A military truck took us there. I was excited, especially when I first saw the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Eventually, we found our own lodging in the suburbs. 

It wasn’t until the following year that my parents were able to fetch my twin sisters from Budapest. 

Life remained precarious. Neither of my parents could find a job, as French citizens came first. We lived on an incredibly puny amount of public assistance (allocations familiales). After a while, my father went back to Hungary, just to be able to get a job. He got trapped behind the Iron Curtain. We, his children, didn’t see him again until we were adults. 

My mother, by now a single mom, finally found work in a photo lab. It was in the city center, an hour away by subway. 

Unable to find and afford adequate child care, she found a cheap rural boarding school for the school year, and for the three summer months she farmed us out to a farmer in a place called Flexanville, about a hundred kilometers north of Paris. 

This was a fairly common practice back then. Many professional Parisians did this. The farmer couple was Monsieur Ismer and his wife. There were half a dozen other kids dropped off there by their Parisian parents. In addition, the Ismers had their own children. So there was at least a dozen of us, ranging from nine (my sisters) to Mark, a fourteen-year old bully with a single father. Parents would come and visit on some week-ends. 

We worked. We helped with the harvest, we carried bales of wheat to the mill, sometimes milked the cows, picked cherries and other fruits. It was Dickensian. 

My sisters and I had a special problem: We were Hungarian, and nobody liked that. Early on, we barely knew French. Yet, Monsieur and Madame Ismer ordered us to speak French, “like normal people,” they said. The other children picked on us for being stupid foreigners and for speaking foreign gibberish with each other. 

So I ordered my sisters to never speak Hungarian again . We had to be accepted, we had to fit in. They complied. 

At the end of the second summer, my mother came to pick us up in order to take us back to Paris, where we were to be enrolled in the local public school. To her utter shock, we were no longer able to speak Hungarian with her. We had totally forgotten our native language. I was ten. I had previously already developed fairly advanced Hungarian speaking and writing skills. Sadly, these skills were now totally gone. I have, today, in my possession some handwritten stories written by myself in Hungarian, but I don’t know what they say. 

Once we were back in Paris, we continued to live in abject poverty, and to be marginalized by the French, who were themselves also struggling, and therefore extremely xenophobic at that time. At some point, my mother fell so far behind with our rent payments that the landlord cut off the water and the electricity to our apartment, in essence evicting us. This caused us to move to yet another country - the Netherlands, which we reached by hitch-hiking. 

We experienced many more vicissitudes during the following eventful decade. However, our bohemian years were only a prelude to rich, productive, incredibly interesting lives as happy, creative, multi-cultural citizens of our adoptive countries - the US for one of my sisters and for me, the UK and Spain for my other sister. 

I hope to share with you some of our journey in a future post.

© Tom Kando 2021;All Rights Reserved